What Forty Years in Youth Ministry Has Taught Me

Download the PDF of A Youth Ministry Manifesto.

On August 11, 1948, the United States Postal Service offered “Saluting Young America,” a first day of issue stamp honoring “Youth Month” which was to be observed in the month of September. It is an interesting coincidence that August 11, 1948 is also the birthday of this writer. And, even if it is merely coincidence, I have always been interested in and committed to working with young people.

My college degree from the University of Missouri – Kansas City was in art education. My goal was to be a high school art teacher. Upon graduation from UMKC, I decided to go to the seminary and graduated from Concordia Theological Seminary then at Springfield, IL. There was a shortage of calls and some creative assignments ensued. My first call was not radically creative but I was called to Lutheran High School in New Orleans. I was to teach religion and any of the fine arts. In other words, my first call included being a high school art teacher.

After two years, my wife and I took a call to St. John Lutheran Church in Farley, MO. Youth ministry was at the top of my list of favorite things about parish ministry. While in Farley, I connected with 12 districts that were planning a regional youth gathering. I served as the local arrangements director for that gathering and did most of the graphic design work. And in 1979, I was called to the Board for Youth Services of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, where I have now served for almost 33 years. An interesting coincidence indeed.

In my ministry, I have been personally committed to the church’s mission to reach the young people God has given us in the families of our congregations and to the church’s outreach mission to un-churched and marginally-churched youth who have little or no relationship with Jesus or with His church.

A poster hangs in my office bearing a quotation from C.F.W. Walther, the first President of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, which reads, “You cannot use your time to better advantage than by serving well the young people of the congregation.” Walther said that to his seminary students, challenging, I believe, those who would be pastors to care for the young. Walther is considered by many, even outside the LCMS, to have been an early advocate for youth ministry. In 1928, in a book titled The Youth Movement in American Lutheran Churches, author Gerald Jenny notes, “Dr. Walther must be counted one of the earliest pioneers in young people’s work among Protestant denominations in America and the first to foster a union of young people’s societies.” Walther established a young man’s group at Trinity Lutheran Church, his congregation in St. Louis, in 1848. A young woman’s society was established in 1868. In his honor, LCMS congregations established The Walther League in 1893, an organization with a great history until it and the LCMS parted company in 1968.

Like many things, it seems youth ministry used to be a lot easier. Teens were connected to churches by their families. They generally hung around through high school and they returned to their home churches, for the most part, after they graduated from college or left the military. Churches convened Bible classes for them to relate Scripture to their adolescence angst. Youth groups were popular and safe places for teens to spend some time, usually Sunday evening. In a sense, it was “Leave It To Beaver” church.

It was then, as it is now, young people reflecting and living the faith given to them by their moms and dads. Christian Smith, in his work on the National Study of Youth and Religion, reports that “you get what you are.” Teens reflect the faith, values and ethics of their parents. But these days, those faith, values and ethics are more often un-churched, non-Christian, fly-by-night. It seems like most people are putting together their values systems and worldviews on a come-as-you go basis. People create a worldview based on what makes them comfortable and what does not get away from the “pursuit of happiness.”
Unfortunately, these days, this seems to be true for much of the church culture also.

The Pew Research Center recently released a report on the religion/spiritual connections of young adults. They found the 27% of adults under the age of 30 were strongly connected to Jesus. But they also found that 30% of those under thirty were committed to no one. When it came to faith/religion/spirituality, they had “none.” This new group has no faith; when it comes to affiliation, they have none and are now called “Nones.” It’s not that they are against God; they are not atheists or agnostics. Church? None. God? None. Faith? None. They are the “Nones” and they are a growing demographic.

In many ways, it seems like youth ministry may have lost its footing in the church as well. This is somewhat generational. When Baby Boomers were teenagers and young adults, youth ministry was in its heyday. Boomers, by their sheer numbers, have always demanded attention in society and that included in the church. It was a time of new music played on the instruments of youth – drums and guitars. It was a time of fun and games, of large gatherings of adolescents, of high energy and enthusiasm. Loud. Bold. Exciting. Youth ministry often took on the aura of a rock show with a nod to the Rock of our faith, Jesus Christ.

Now, Boomers are growing older, moving to the top of our aging population. They are still great in number. They are still pretty self-focused. Rather than focusing on young people and their spiritual nurture, older adult ministry seems to be moving to the fore. Young people are often forgotten because “Boomers” are not young anymore.

Plus, our churches used to be full of young people. “Outreach to youth” in the last half of the 20th century was basically accomplished by giving birth to new children. Following World War II, the returning GI’s gave birth to the baby boom and that boom populated churches. With the aging of the church – and it is aging – we’re no longer giving birth to the next generation of Lutheran Christians. In 1980 based on junior confirmation statistics, The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod had a youth population somewhere around 220,000. In 2011, that population was around 95,000.

And we do not know how to do outreach to teens. Cold calls on households certainly are not going to work these days. How and where do we meet teens? What do we say to them? Liability concerns may rear their ugly heads as we attempt to meet and reach teenagers. How do we reach teens without appearing to be spiritual stalkers?

What is the future of youth ministry in the church – any church? Here are some thoughts.

Download the PDF of A Youth Ministry Manifesto to read more.

Originally published in 2013.